Esau’s Embrace: Thoughts on Genesis 33

Bleker, Gerrit Claesz.; The Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Shipley Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-meeting-of-jacob-and-esau-35430

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it is supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel-board versions of the story (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures to the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it shifts the narrative and says something different.

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The Wordles of Zion

Like about 20% of the English-speaking world—and a much higher portion of my personal friends and acquaintances—I play Wordle every day. I start at exactly midnight, play the day’s Wordle, and then post my result to Facebook, where dozens of friends post their scores, commiserate with me when my score sucks, and celebrate with me when it doesn’t. It has become an important ritual in my life.

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God Under the Bus

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” —C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

In his classic essay, “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis spoke to the difficulties he encountered when he tried to talk about religion with modern secular audiences. The core of the problem, as he outlines it, is that people expect God to conform to their secular moral perspectives. God, he lamented, is constantly on trial in the modern world because people are not willing to let go of their own assumptions about right and wrong. [Read more…]

Kristine Haglund, Eugene England and the Possibility of Mormon Liberalism

My most vivid memory of Eugene England goes like this: In the early 1990s, I was a teaching assistant in the BYU English Department—a position that, under certain circumstances, and only when accompanied by the professor I teaching-assisted, permitted me to enter the faculty lounge on the second floor of the old JKHB. Once when I was in these hallowed halls working on final grades for a Victorian Lit class, Gene was there doing the same with his American Lit TAs. My group was using a calculator to compute points from quizzes, tests, and papers, using attendance and participation points to raise or lower a close call. Gene was leading his TAs in prayer.

This was not a general, “please help us be sensitive to our students’ needs” kind of prayer. They were going through the class list in alphabetical order, and Gene was asking God for inspiration about every student by name. Even at BYU in the 1990s, this was a little bit strange—made even stranger by the fact that the prayers were completely sincere. Gene was not playing to a crowd. He really, genuinely wanted to know what God thought about his students’ grades.

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BYU’s New Demonstration Policy Explained

Dear students,

As you have no doubt heard, the Lord has revealed a new demonstration policy for students at His university. This policy is designed to maximize our students’ moral agency–which we define as “the ability to exercise uncompromising obedience in the face of difficult moral choices while not being gay.” There has been a lot of discussion about these new regulations, and we want to make sure that our expectations are clear. To do this, we have devised the following scenarios–each represented by a photograph that illustrates the deep gospel truths of this policy. Please keep in mind that any drawings or photographs of rule-breaking behaviors are simulations only. No student testimonies were harmed to create these scenarios.

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No Future Without Forgiveness: Desmond Tutu’s Big Idea

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

― Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), No Future Without Forgivenes

The death of a great person gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways that their lives have touched ours. Few people impacted the 20th century as profoundly, or as positively, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did, so I expect (and hope) to see a lot of reflections about him in the coming weeks. In writing my own I hope only to be part of a long line celebrating a wonderful life.

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Call for Essays on Gene England

A Special Invitation

to

Family, friends, colleagues and students of

Eugene England

to submit brief personal expressions

for a proposed published collection of essays

from individuals

whose faith in and devotion to Christ

were inspired by Gene’s writing, teaching and discipleship 

Length: from 800-1500 words

Format: Microsoft Word

Deadline: April 6, 2022

Submit to: EEnglandmemories@gmail.com

Scrupulous: A New Book from BCC Press

The newest offering from BCC Press, Taylor Kerby’s memoir Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God treats issues that resonate with me on a very personal level. Rather than a typical marketing post, I want to share the foreword that I wrote for the book. Like Taylor Kerby, I struggled for much of my life with the anxiety disorder known as scrupulosity, which affects people from strong religious backgrounds. As an adult, I have discovered that many members of the Church suffer from this disorder without realizing it because it looks and feels a lot like the things we learned to call morality and repentance. We have made this book part of our year-end sale, and we hope that it will help start important conversations that many Latter-day Saints need to have.


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“Behold the Condescension of God”

Quanta dignatio Dei! quanta Virginis excellentia! Currite, matres; currite, filiae; currite, omnes quae post Evam, et ex Eva, et parturimini cum tristitia, et parturitis. Adite virginalem thalamum, ingredimini, si potestis, pudicum sororis vestrae cubiculum.

How great the condescension of God! How great the excellence of the Virgin! Hasten, all ye mothers! And hasten, all ye daughters! Hasten, all ye who after Eve and on account of Eve, are born and give birth in sorrow! Approach the Virgin’s chamber ; enter, if you can, the modest room of your Sister
.

—Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) 

The central event of the Christmas season—the incarnation of God as a human infant born in humble circumstances to a peasant woman in an unimportant part of the great Roman Empire—is introduced in the Book of Mormon as the interpretation of a dream about a tree.

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How Democracies Die: A Cautionary Tale from the Book of Mormon

The world is becoming more authoritarian as non-democratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many  democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a “new normal” of Covid-19 restrictions.

  —The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) 2021 Report on the Global State of Democracy

The bi-annual Global State of Democracy report released this week did not bring good news for the world. Since 1995, the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has coordinated the efforts of the world’s democratic nations to improve representative democracy and discourage authoritarianism throughout the world.

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Weasleys, Rostovs, and Mormons–Oh My!

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Harry Potter franchise. . . .

The Weasleys are the Mormons of the Wizarding World. This was clear to me the first time I saw a Harry Potter movie (though it didn’t come through as clearly in the books). Lots of things suggest the comparison, but the two most obvious ones are the quantity and the quality of their family life: They have lots of kids—7 in all—and they support them all on a (magical) civil servant’s salary. This means lots of hand-me-downs, used spell books, taped wands, and sack lunches. But it also means that they are fiercely loyal to each other, always know that they are loved, and always feel like they are part of a family.

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Dante and the Singing Sufferers of Purgatory

While we began to move in that direction,
Beati pauperes spiritu was sung
so sweetly—it cannot be told in words.
How different were these entryways from those
of Hell! For here it is with song one enters;
down there, it is with savage lamentations.

—Purgatorio, Canto XII, Allen Mandelbaum Translation

(The following post is based on an Elder’s Quorum lesson given on November 14, 2021.)

I have always liked the middle parts best: The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Goblet of Fire. My favorite Stooge is Larry, and my favorite Brady is Jan. Middle parts tend to lack both the drama necessary to bring closure to a story and the deep explanation required to begin one. If a story doesn’t have a strong middle, then it probably isn’t a very good story.

It should be no surprise that my favorite book of Dante’s Commedia is Purgatorio, or Purgatory. Inferno is fascinating, but it is basically the Medieval Italian version of the Jerry Springer Show. We watch it because we can’t turn away from the grotesque spectacle of unfiltered human folly. And Paradiso is wonderful and serene, but who wants to read 33 cantos of serenity? Bo-ring.

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Thanksgiving on the Tower of Rameumptom

It is November again, a month famous for growing mustaches, writing novels, complaining about Christmas music, and, not at all least, practicing gratitude. It’s the gratitude that I want to talk about. For several years, I have really tried to use the ubiquitous November messaging—let’s call it “Big Gratitude”—to try to improve the way that I feel and express thankfulness about many things. It’s harder than it looks, I keep discovering, because of the Rameumptom Problem.  

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The Political Threat of Priestcraft

Cover for the pamphlet “The Crimes of the Clergy; or The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken,” London, 1823

I am not entirely sure that the world of Mormon blogs needs another post defining “priestcraft.” The current status of the word as a fill-in-the-blank insult that means something like “making money from a religious belief that I disagree with” has been a frequent topic of Morminish blogs. Here, all the way from 2012, is Sam Brunson wondering if Deseret Book is engaging in priestcraft by profiting from religious books. And, from 2017, here is Blair Hodges wondering the same about BCC Press.  

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Loving the Darkness: A Halloween Sermon

When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
                        —Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 5

I am an inveterate and unrepentant lover of Halloween. Every October, both my house and my mind play host to the darkest things I can imagine: ghosts and witches, monsters and demons, and evil things that I would be ashamed to even imagine until very late in September. I have a wide selection of Halloween ties to wear to work, virtual costumes for all of my social media sites, and two Spotify playlists of dark Halloween music—one classical and one contemporary—that I listen to all day, every day of the month. (Please feel free to steal them).   

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Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

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On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

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The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

This is not a post about the recent disclosures regarding the LDS Church’s investment in the City Creek Mall, but it is inspired by some of the discussions I have had about those disclosures. More than anything else, it is about the difference between managing (including investing) money and spending money, which, I think, is at the heart of the disagreement. If the Church has been spending tithing dollars on city malls, that is a big problem. If they have been investing savings — wherever the origin —in a in a city mall, then, it seems to me, that is no different than investing in oil companies, or tech stocks, or bitcoin. The management of resources, I think, follows a different set of moral rules than their expenditure.

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Look. At. The. Damn. Snake.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.

—The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 12, 2021

God must have known that the Latter-day Saints would be a stiff-necked people, as he gave the second half of the story only to us. In the Old Testament, we can read about Moses and the Brazen Serpent: the Children of Israel were tired of wandering, so they did what they do best: they complained about it. And they complained so much that God decided to send them fiery serpents. Poison Fiery serpents that could fly, even, as if regular old fiery serpents weren’t scary enough.

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What Do We Mean When We Say that the Scriptures Are True?

The walls of Jericho fall downBible story from the book of Joshua chapter 6 verse 20. From an original woodcut published in 1860 by George Wigland LeipzigArists Julius Schnorr (d. 1872)

I can remember the exact moment that I decided that the Bible was true. It was about ten years ago, while I was reading The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, encountering for the first tie the wealth of archaeological evidence that neither the Exodus from Egypt nor the conquest of Canaan ever occured. Rather, the evidence suggests, the YHWH cult emerged from within the native Canaanite population, grew to dominate the society, and then created a martial history for itself to give significance to the movement.

I cannot express the relief that I felt when I read these arguments. By that time, I had concluded that the Bible could not be true if the stories of conquest and genocide were historically accurate. I could not accept that the god of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges–a god who favors one race of people over another and does not merely tolerate, but affirmatively commands, genocidal slaughter. I simply could not accept such a being as my loving and merciful father.

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On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B

Whether dealing with monkeys, rats, or human beings, it is hardly controversial to state that most organisms seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded. . . . Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that behaviors which are rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior he desires is not being rewarded at all. –Steven Kerr

There are not many business management articles that I would consider “classics,” and there is perhaps only one that I would be tempted to call “indispensable”: Steven Kerr’s excellent 1975 article, “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.” Nearly everything important about the article can be derived from the title: human institutions have a habit of rewarding one thing while expecting another. And this is dumb. Everything else is just examples.

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Running Towards Hope on the Morning of the Resurrection: An Easter Sermon

Eugène Burnand, Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection  (1898)

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first (John 20:1-4)

The essential meaning of Easter—for me at least—can be found in a single painting, which I have mentioned here before as my favorite work of devotional art. The painting is by Eugène Burnand, about whom I know nothing else except that he was Swiss. The text it illustrates is in the Gospel of John. And the unwieldy title, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection,” tells us everything we need to know to understand what is going on. Peter and John are running towards the tomb that Jesus was buried in because Mary Magdalene told them that his body was no longer there.

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The First Work of Mormon Science Fiction? Maybe, but at Least the Pterodactyls are Cool

The original cover and title page of A Trip to the North Pole; or, Discovery of the Ten Tribes (1903)

On the first Sunday of December in 1903, a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune announced the startling news, NORTH POLE DISCOVERED—six years before explorer Robert Peary’s famous, if disputed, expedition. According to the article, a Mr. O.J.S. Lindelof had, on a recent trip to Europe, been given a waterlogged manuscript that he brought back with him to Salt Lake City. When he finally got around to reading it, the manuscript turned out to be a record of the discovery of the North Pole by a San Francisco-based expedition some years earlier. Unlike Peary, who discovered an uninhabitable frozen wasteland, the explorers in Lindelof’s manuscript describe a verdant, densely populated region that has been hidden from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

As the Tribune reported, “it tells of finding a white and civilized people; tells of their customs, habits, wars, and dissentions, their flora and their fauna, and gives a complete record of their country from the time they arrived until the record was sealed up.”  And, as the book’s subtitle reveals, these are not just ordinary people living in a hidden population center around the North Pole. They speak a form of Hebrew and make sacrifices to “the God of Abraham” (97)—because, as the narrator concludes, they are indeed the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel (9). 

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Killing the Buddha

If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him.

According to tradition, the 9th century Zen Master Linji Yixuan instructed his students with the koan, “if you meet the Budha on the road, kill him.” I am fairly sure that he did not mean this literally. Let’s be clear. Nobody should kill anybody, of any religion, on or off of the road, for any reason. Don’t do it. 

But, as Zen koans go, this one is easier than most. The whole idea of a koan is that it is supposed to make you think for, like, ten years about all of the nooks and crannies of meaning that it contains. Koans are supposed to be confusing. They are supposed to challenge our understanding of what “meaning” means.

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Love for Christmas

Each year during the Christmas season, I try to write a blog post on a Christmas poem that has been meaningful for me. In the last six years, this has meant poems by Whitman, Rossetti, Auden, Elliot, Hardy, and Brodsky. I have also, over this time, managed three of the four Advent themes: Hope, Peace, and Joy. So this post is going to be a twofer: the seve th installment of the Christmas poetry theme, and the final installment on the Advent series. I want to talk about love.

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Josephine Spencer: If Mormon Literature Wants a Future, It Has to Get a Past

If you want a future, darlin’,
Why don’t you get a past?

–Cole Porter, “Let’s Misbehave”

The last BCC Press book of 2020 is here, just in time. Years in the making, Josephine Spencer: Her Collected Works, Volume One–edited by Ardis Parshall and Yours Truly. is the second offering in our new Classics of Mormon Literature series, joining A Craving for Beauty: The Collected Writings of Maurine Whipple, which we published in November. These are the first; there will be more. In the coming year, look for a critical edition of Orson F. Witney’s Elias: Epic of the Ages and a collection of works surrounding B.H. Roberts’ Corianton. And we’re just getting started.

The governing principle of the Classics series is that, as Cole Porter wrote (and countless crooners have sung), if we want a futre in Mormon literature, we have got to get a past. We have to do a better job of recognizing that there is a tradition of literature in the Mormon community. Traditions are important to those who want to build on them. They are also important for those who want to break from them. And they are especially important for those, like me, who want to study and write about them. So, these books are necessary acts of reclamation. We are reclaiming our culture and our literary tradition before we forget about them forever.

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We Are All on the Island of Misfit Toys

I come from a generation of kids who had to plan their television binging far in advance. I’m sure you have heard of these days: we had three channels (plus PBS for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers), we used rabbit-ear antennas to improve reception, and we got the TV schedule every Sunday in the newspaper and read through it carefully to see what was coming on TV that week so we could plan our schedules.

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Costly Signaling, Cheap Grace, and Loving Our Enemies after an Election

(Post adapted from a lesson in the Newburgh Ward priesthood meeting on Sunday, November 8, 2020)

In the aftermath of last week’s election, I have had two books on my mind. Two very different books from two very different parts of my life, but their central messages have come together for me in the aftermath of a national election that has stirred more emotions in me than I thought could be stirred. In such moments, I usually turn to books. It’s how I roll.

The first book is the classic, if highly specialized monograph The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems by William A. Searcy and Stephen Nowicki. This is the book that introduced me to the concept of “costly signaling” in evolutionary biology (something that proved very important to my own book on a related topic about ten years ago).

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Grace Like Water, Poems by Merrijane Rice

Two of my favorite poems in the English language are Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” and GK Chesterton’s “The Donkey.” Both are poems about the New Testament, and both are about domesticated animals, but they are still very different poems. “The Oxen” is a poem by an agnostic who yearns for the story of the Nativity and yearns for it to be true. “The Donkey” is by a deeply religious poet who writes from the perspective of the Donkey that Christ rode triumphantly through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But they are both acts of deep private devotion.

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Sacred Stories, Political Debate, and the Problem of Disagreement in Zion

In 1680, England had a problem. For a century and a half–since Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534–the nation’s politics had been driven by religious disputes, with the three major factions–Catholics, Anglican Protestant, and Calvinist Dissenters–taking turn running the country and killing thousands of people in the process.

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